When I was a student in England I walked almost everywhere. Everywhere I couldn’t reach by walking, I reached by bicycle. Cinderella I wasn’t; glass shoes would not have withstood the mileage.
At Cambridge University, my college was up a steep hill. New Hall was a modernist building slipped like a small, bright volume on a high shelf away from the older, more formidable tomes. Like Girton College, one of England’s first residential colleges for women, New Hall’s literal position illustrated its metaphorical one: Women scholars and students were kept at a distance from the long-established city center.
Looking directly at the heart of Cambridge, you’d find the older colleges, among them Trinity, King’s and St. John’s. Swan is still served to the fellows of St. John’s, which received its charter in 1511, and these fellows are the only people apart from the royal family who dine on such a fowl dish legally (or, one imagines, willingly). The cellars of the earliest colleges boast sherries, wines and ports going back centuries, with bottles being almost as aged, fortified and full-bodied, it seems, as the faculty.
But I looked up; I’d enthusiastically chosen a women’s college.
Graduating early from my American undergraduate institution, Dartmouth College, which had a 7-1 male-female ratio, I decided to change my accounting methods and apply to women’s colleges in the United Kingdom. Cambridge was, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, still overwhelmingly male. I could choose masculine company when I wished but, for the first time in my life, I could also sequester myself in an all-women environment when I needed one.
I’d won a fellowship that would pay my fees at Cambridge and I chose New Hall (now called Murray Edwards College — hooray for contemporary philanthropists as well as those prominent in the 12th-century) because it offered both a contrast and a complement to what I’d experienced at Dartmouth.
During those glorious years in the United Kingdom, my feet began to hurt. Maybe it was walking the two miles from lectures and tutorials that made my toes ache; maybe it was cycling, as I did on a too-frequent basis to the train station to catch the Friday run that would deliver me to Kings Cross and a London boyfriend.
I had to tread more carefully.
I blamed my woes on the British weather because everybody blamed everything on the British weather.
It was a convenient excuse — but I knew better.
“If the shoe fits, wear it,” advises the old shibboleth, but I was wearing whatever I could find — whether or not it fit.
While the fellowship paid for my education, I had to pay for my clothes. I worked at the library and as a freelancer for the BBC. Those jobs brought in a little money, but not much.
My shoes were either second-foot or very cheap. I bought them at charity shops or from market stalls.
The old ones were well-made but rarely fit correctly; the cheap ones might be the right size but they were flimsy and offered little support. Both kinds would bite so fiercely into the back of my heels that my trousers or stockings would be blotchy with blood by the end of an evening. They would not leave the sort of charming, dainty and feminine impression for which I was aiming.
Thirty-six years later, almost but not quite to the day when I went to sign papers admitting me, officially, to the Oxbridge experience about which one my heroines, Virginia Woolf, had written (“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in”), I had surgery removing most of the middle toe on my right foot.
(It’s the middle toe that, according to rhyme and legend, dined on roast beef. It should have remained vegetarian.)
Now that it’s gone, I hope that some of the old pain goes with it.
If I’d worn flat shoes to Cambridge’s May Balls, would I have kept it? Would it have been worth it? I dance in my dreams to my tight-shoed poor girls’ shimmy without regret; I will learn, in old age, to compensate. Cinderella kicks up her heels; she lingers along her own nine-toed line.
Gina Barreca can be reached through her website at www.ginabarreca.com.